Destroying The Earth Is Hard

I’m working on a big science fiction idea at the moment – a terrible enemy has taken over the planet and mankind must fight back – and I’ve run up against a bit of a problem. The ending.

I’m starting to think that in post-apocalyptic stories is it’s very hard to convey victory to the audience.

If you’re writing a movie about terrorists trying to blow up the Statue of Liberty, then if at the end she’s still standing – victory. If it’s about a man trying to get back together with his wife, and they don’t divorce at the end – victory.

But if the world we know and love is already gone, what does victory even look like? Okay, you defeated the alien invaders, or the killer robots, or whatever – but half the planet is a smoking wasteland and mankind’s sliding back into the Stone Age, so where’s the cause for celebration? Things aren’t going to get any more shit – but they’re not getting any less shit either…

And that’s the problem with destroying the earth. It’s hard to believe that your plucky hero’s victory, however much good he’s done for mankind, actually means anything in the grand scheme of things.

There are ways round this. Alien invasion movies like Independence Day often leave enough standing to suggest that the world can get back on its feet without too much difficulty. Or you can suggest a new future for mankind – a restored Earth, or perhaps a new world (though I find the ‘starting again on another planet’ approach is viewed very negatively by producers and execs. Again, it feels like defeat, not victory.)

But if you’ve genuinely pushed mankind to it’s limits and there’s nowhere else to go – how do you convey the sense of victory and triumph that the end of any good movie has to deliver?

Theft Ain’t What It Used To Be

As many of you have probably already seen in the news, there was an audacious heist this weekend. But it wasn’t gold, or diamonds, or even drugs, and it wasn’t pulled off by masked men with guns or cat burglars.

Instead, someone sat at their computer and hacked a trading site called The Sheep Market, stealing the entire trading balance of Bitcoins, with a real-world market value that has been estimated anywhere between $5m and $100m. Since a lot of the trade on The Sheep Market – now bankrupt and closed down – seems to have been in illegal drugs, it may well serve their customers right. But the story does raise an interesting issue for screenwriters, which can best be summed up by asking a question –

How would you turn this theft into a heist movie?

Sounds promising. Clever thief, potentially shady targets, the victims tracking their attempts to launder the money across the web in real time… Until you try to dramatise the story into scenes – and realise every scene is going to be people staring at computer screens and hammering at their keyboards. (Which, I’m told, is not hacking actually works, but anyway…)

Theft used to be entirely personal. When Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor, he actually went into their houses or waylaid them as they rode through the forest. Then wealth accumulated in banks, and both in real life and in the movies, we moved to the Bonnie & Clyde model of bank robbery – and simultaneously branched out into the clever heist, as in Rififi and Ocean’s 11.

But we’re rapidly moving towards a world where money won’t be physical at all. So how are we going to write crime movies when there’s nothing to be stolen but zeros and ones in a secure computer file somewhere?

Art theft movies have been been out of fashion for a while now. I can see them making a comeback – but art and other object of value actually exist and can be physically taken, making for a dynamic and tension-filled story that’s easier to follow than the movement of theoretical numbers from account to account.

And of course, one of these days, someone will actually work out how to make a hacker-heist movie that actually works…

Writing for CBBC

So, I was one of the speakers at the CBBC Writers Day on Friday – a day for working writers who are already working for, or might want to work for, CBBC or CBeebies. As well as a range of guest speakers, the commissioning and development staff talked extensively about what they were looking for. Here are the highlights –

What kind of ideas is CBBC looking for?

We want to find enduring fantasy and adventure stories with strong, memorable characters and unusual settings. Young Dracula and Wizards vs. Aliens have proved big successes, but what could be next?

Is there a show like The Dumping Ground, not set in a school or care home but that has a similarly broad and refreshable cast? Perhaps there’s a show that could be built around characters currently in our dramas, or an older-skewing ensemble show.

We are also looking for low cost comedy ideas that might possibly include CBBC talent and could be set-based (as in Hotel Trubble) or out and about (Scoop).

Any top tips?

Immerse yourself in our content.

Demonstrate a passion for writing for our audience.

Think about how kids watch TV and the different ways you can tell stories (with interactive and online elements)

We can cover social issues within a show as long as it’s done in an appropriate way for our audience

Make sure your idea not only reflects the lives of 6 to 12 year-olds but entertains them too.

Don’t be afraid to pitch something a little different; we are actively looking for bold and original ideas that we haven’t seen before.

Don’t let production issues limit your ideas, but we find shows with a precinct and/or multi-protagonist shows work well for us.

It’s difficult for us to achieve ideas driven by complicated special effects, and we have a couple of period dramas on our slate already, so are not looking for any more

Don’t be disheartened if your idea doesn’t go to commission. The needs of the channel constantly change, and development is about having an ongoing relationship with you and your work.

Things I Learned from… Agents Of SHIELD

If ever there was a show that seemed destined to succeed, it was Agents Of SHIELD. (Yes, I know it’s S.H.I.E.L.D, but honestly, life is too short for that amount of punctuation…) Great creative minds behind the concept, great writers, great cast, and the publicity boost provided by the cinematic Marvel Universe and Marvel Comics. And we haven’t even mentioned the enduring popularity of Clark Gregg’s performance as Agent Phil Coulson…

So why is it a bit… uninspiring? Well, I think there may be a problem that goes to the heart of SHIELD itself.

Superhero stories are empowerment fantasies. They allow us to imagine what we’d do if we had the powers of the X-Men, the money and physical strength of Bruce Wayne, the intellect and technical skills of Tony Stark. They’re about self-actualisation, about everyone taking charge of their life and world and making them better.

SHIELD stands for the exact opposite of that. SHIELD’s job is to tell superpowered individuals to hide their abilities. To seize radical new technologies and lock them in a vault. And in one episode, to require a scientist to spend his entire life locked in a moving truck, alone and effectively a prisoner, because of SHIELD’s fear of what he might invent.

SHIELD is a reactionary organisation dedicated to keeping technology and superpowers away from everyone, even those who might use them for good. It’s the equivalent of a nuclear superpower telling another country it’s not allowed to develop nuclear technology. “We can have nuclear power, because we’re the good guys. But you can’t be trusted with it. Why? Because we say so.”

And who wants to watch that?

I’ll tell you the show I’d like to watch – and actually, it would be a show far more in keeping with Joss Whedon’s usual ethos…

I’d like to watch the show where a band of superpowered individuals with varying – and in some cases, dubious – motives band together to take down SHIELD, destroying this sinister organisation that wants to control humanity’s access to the fruits of its ingenuity and imagination.

A Marvel Universe without SHIELD would be a far more dangerous place. But despite that, it would be a universe far more free and worth living in.